Bravado or blunder? Architectural fails of medieval church builders

Cathedrals are often grand, opulent and magnificent – though sometimes more by accident than design. Historian Emma J Wells unpicks the architectural fails of the medieval church builders

Construction of a medieval church

It was Ascension Day, 1573. Crowds filled Beauvais Cathedral in northern France, ready to celebrate holy mass. But as the solemn procession snaked towards the high altar, heavy thuds could be heard resonating throughout the stone edifice.

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Before the eyes of horror-struck worshippers, the colossal 500-foot crossing tower came crashing down, a veil of debris and dust slowly enveloping the church. Only a few years in existence and the tallest of its kind, this was not the first time this ambitious addition had been the cause of the cathedral’s collapse.

Beauvais Cathedral continues to be plagued by structural problems. High above the continuous stream of 21st-century churchgoers and tourists, modern braces are the only element keeping it from crumbling. These may be an unsettling reminder of a medieval disaster, but they are also evidence of a lesson learned: caution over creativity.

“Experience is the name everyone gives to their mistakes.” Although tinged with irony, Oscar Wilde’s words are a testament to medieval architects and masons. In essence, some of our greatest abbey churches and cathedrals– these seemingly divine representations of the Heavenly Jerusalem – are masterpieces of miscalculation and unfortunate happenings (whether deliberate, accidental or foolish).

But though invention could bring disaster, catastrophe also heralded opportunity and discovery. From towering infernos to bodgejobs, medieval ecclesiastical fabric (that is, the walls, floor and roof) is a roster of the stories and characters responsible for its creation.

Hope from the ashes

On a gloomy February morning in 1829, a zealous non-conformist did his very best to burn York Minster to the ground. As choristers made their way across the Minster yard, they noticed sparks rising from the cathedral’s medieval timber roof. As debris, molten lead and blazing timbers began to rain down, firefighters were forced to evacuate the choir.

Long into the night, the people of York strove to save the rest of the structure, but the pulpit, organ and much irreplaceable music were destroyed. Even before the fire was extinguished, authorities suspected arson. The culprit, Jonathan Martin, was sent to Bedlam for the rest of his life.

York owes much of its origins to several disastrous fires. Infernos struck a handful of times throughout the medieval period, while the current structure faced further blazes in 1753, 1840 and most recently in 1984. But during clearance of rubble from the 1829 disaster, the Clerk of Works, John Browne, realised that the columns of the nave extended far beneath the ruined floor of the choir. In a great streak of luck, excavations revealed the remains of the Romanesque choir and crypt. Out of this catastrophe, one of the most important ever archaeological discoveries pertaining to the previous building was made. History can therefore offer hope, as tragedy frequently leads to triumph.

Living in the past

Relatively few medieval masons had the opportunity to design religious buildings from scratch. Invention was commonly restricted by what had gone before, requiring mor creative adaptation. What resulted was often an extraordinary mix of calamity, evolution and revolution. An exemplar of such invention from catastrophe was Ely Cathedral’s Octagon.

In February 1322, the church’s Romanesque crossing tower crashed to the ground with such “thunderous noise” that many believed the cause to be an earthquake. Barely had the dust settled before an experimental new space was envisioned: a vast, 21-metre-wide octagonal later soaring up through the centre of the church. It was without precedent in English architecture, having eight piers, rather than the usual four of a more orthodox tower.

Central or crossing towers were the nuisance of the medieval mason. The arches wanted to push outwards, so the buildings were sometimes guilty of misbehaviour that could produce a collapse. Cathedrals were essentially a house of cards, where the placement of every individual stone played a pivotal role. Nonetheless, as well as “beneficial” collapses like Ely, the towers also remained a consistent outlet for creative ambition. After two further storeys were added to the tower at Wells Cathedral in the early 14th century, the entire structure was threatening collapse.

An interior view of Wells Cathedral
Wells Cathedral’s prominent strainer arches are now part of the character of the cathedral. (Oxford Scientific / Getty Images Plus)

But the master mason’s bold and original solution became one of the most memorable sights of all English architecture and part of the very identity of the cathedral: three strainer arches, one under each crossing arch (to take the weight) – mimicking what many refer to as scissors, owls or eyes. We can only wonder whether the medieval clergy regarded them with such idiosyncrasy.

Though invention involved risk, it also required self-belief. Dubbed “crazy”, the ribbed vault over the choir at Lincoln Cathedral is something of an enigma. Although there were no obvious structural risks in its creation, there is a clear set of additional ribs in the pattern which disrupt the overall symmetry. The only explanation for this unorthodoxy over  uniformity, is that the design was worked out as building progressed – a cavalier approach to not thinking too far ahead.

Far from crazy, this was actually a rational response to the particular geometries of the cathedral, though admittedly it did give way to a slew of additional mistakes: especially noticeable are the juxtaposition of irregular arches and a motley crew of misalignments in the main transepts.

A further high-point of creative satisfaction in the simple audacity of the mason’s choice can be found in Gloucester Cathedral’s choir. Essentially, any past faults were concealed (and any further work required reduced) by the insertion of a “skin” or frame of tracery, which stretches across the interior of the Romanesque fabric. So, employing this web of secrets, the Benedictine monks hid their past mistakes without losing any of the old work – blessed monks.

Completing the work of those who have gone before has often led to tragedy and trouble. Building work had to be strung out over lengthy periods, whatever the associated reason – resources, economics, expertise, disease. While in many cases this did not inhibit invention, occasionally master masons enjoyed overthrowing the designs of their predecessors resulting in rather interesting architectural discord.

Perhaps the most infamous, at least for the story behind the blunder, is the “odd” southernmost pier or column of Durham Cathedral’s south transept. To accentuate the most significant areas in the choir and transept of the great Norman cathedral, piers (upright supports) are incised with spiral fluting (vertical grooves), while a mix of lozenges, chevrons (V shapes) and fluting follows in the nave. But one pier, known as the Apprentice’s Column, features a very noticeable break in its pattern, instead fusing the spiral and chevron designs.

Legend has it this hybrid south-transept column was executed by an apprentice in the master mason’s absence (this tale has also been linked to Rosslyn Chapel in Scotland and Lincoln Cathedral, so its authenticity is dubious). In actuality, there are many possible reasons for the anomaly. Some have dismissed it as a mistake resulting from the miscalculation of blocks required for assembly, while others have given it much more profound importance.

Medieval builders frequently used spirals to highlight areas of special sanctity, following the model of Old St Peter’s Basilica in Rome. On these grounds, the pier may have indicated where the relics of St Cuthbert were once temporarily housed, or at least the location of a reliquary or altar.

No fear of failure

The medieval mentality certainly valued virtue in experiment; there was no fear in taking a chance on the unknown. Relatively few scale models were used as reference, so the construction of our greatest cathedrals and abbey churches was as much a learning process as anything else. In around 1195, the monastic church of St Albans saw a programme of work to the western section of the nave. A key part of the scheme involved a magnificent new façade.

The ambitious design was the brainchild of new abbot, John de Cella, eager to make his mark. But his plan soon began to unravel. Not only was progress slow but walls began collapsing and the carving disintegrated, supposedly having been left out for the winter.

The abbot blamed master mason Hugh de Goldclif for the shoddy outcome, suggesting his desire for too much unnecessary and costly carving was the cause, and so dismissed him.

The trivial tussle was thus immortalised in the fabric. Hugh planned his nave extension with sumptuous octagonal columns surrounded by eight detached shafts. Along the west wall, the bottom sections remain unfinished – like the stumps of a tree, forever waiting to receive the shafts that would never be.

Although careful attention was customarily paid to preserving old work and matching it with the new, in many cases the relief that fabric still remained, and remained stable, was enough to simply add a handy roof boss, decorative headstop or fancy foliage to conceal any bodges. And so, fabric is often littered with rather comical corrections.

An abundance can be found at the east end of York, its irregularities comprising the subtle characteristics which make the Minster such amsplendid and important architectural edifice. Many of these stem from a need to accomplish the work in two phases throughout the 14th century; from the problems in setting out a new structure designed to link the old with the new.

What resulted was a slight kink in the south arcade causing it to deviate southwards from the fourth pier from the east – essentially, producing a concertinaed wall. You can also distinctly see the joins – the junction between the two stages of work. !e corbels (projecting blocks) to the east of the vaulting shafts within the Lady Chapel are decorated with leaves, while to the west, within the choir, they are plainly moulded. And Carlisle Cathedral faced similar wonky woes – in fact it is riddled with them – with every arm of its central crossing plagued by a concertinaed distortion due to sinking piers.

Reviving Notre-Dame

In the aftermath of the fire at the Cathedral of Notre-Dame on 15 April, experts are rallying round in the hopes of saving what remains, and restoring the sacred landmark to its former glory. But what options are available for its future? At present, we can only speculate, but the primary concern will be removing the cages of melted sca olding that were covering much of the exterior as part of ongoing restoration efforts.

The whole will then be protected (using an umbrella-type sheath) to keep out the elements. From there, a detailed inspection can be carried out of the interior. Surprisingly, some of the masonry and wood will be salvaged and even reused, so time will be spent sifting through the mounds of fallen debris. Archaeological surveys of the stonework, timber and glass will then be undertaken in order to assess what survives, and to inform possible approaches to the building’s future design – whatever they might be. At this stage, that is still unconfirmed.

But rather than bemoaning 21st-century design, perhaps we need to accept that, fundamentally, the past can be recaptured. Though pastiche is frequently unsuitable, there is room for contemporary design which employs traditional skills and materials yet captures original form without appearing incongruous.

The devil and the detail

There are some mistakes that defy belief. In 1248, master mason Gerhard of Ryle was commissioned to design a new plan for the cathedral at Cologne, after the old was discovered no longer worthy. Consumed by  doubt over his own abilities, he began to despair. As he gazed across the Rhine upon his work so far, a stranger appeared before him.

The stranger began compiling a superb plan to construct the cathedral in just three years. Astonished, Gerhard petitioned the gentleman what he must give in exchange for the plan. The stranger requested Gerhard’s soul. He agreed.

Countless versions of the concluding part of the story survive, but all agree on one thing: Master Gerhard’s happiness was short-lived. After engineering his own vengeful plot to deceive the Devil, he imposed a curse on the cathedral: as soon as it was to be completed, the end of the world would come. Essentially, Cologne would never be finished.

For centuries, it appeared as if this premonition had merit. In reality, the foundation stone of the north tower was laid around 1500, but little more work progressed and efforts on the cathedral slowly ceased. And so people began to tell the fable. It was not until 1842 that work began once again, with completion in 1880.

Fuelled by faith and guided by daring engineering, medieval ecclesiastical masons and architects forever changed how we build. Pushing the limits of their technology, their quest to reach celestial heights often came at the price of structural instability, mistake, fire and even ultimate collapse. But this construction took place before the era of elaborate plans or drawings, so dealing with individual components rather than comprehensive schemes was par for the course.

Furthermore, the range of skills expected of masons was extensive: from hewing and squaring the blocks of stone, to sculpting it into capitals, the entire process could often be in their hands. Is it any wonder mistakes occurred? So although earthly limitations brought some cathedrals crashing to the ground, on the whole they fulfilled the purpose of achieving heaven on earth. Just remember: a glorious cathedral, Satan does not build, so best not to get around mistakes by making a pact with the Devil.

Emma J Wells is associate lecturer in ecclesiastical history at the University of York. 

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This article first appeared in the July 2019 issue of BBC History Revealed